Rabbi Asher Lopatin’s vision for Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

So, where does Rabbi Asher Lopatin intend to steer Yeshivat Chovevei Torah when he takes over as president next summer? Here’s what he told me:

What I really want to do is to make sure the students learn the breadth of Orthodoxy… mentored by Orthodox rabbanim and poskim and by Orthodox thinkers from the spectrum of Orthodoxy, and I want them to be creative and independent thinkers. I want to make sure Chovevei Torah is an integral part of the Orthodox world, and I’d like to appeal to people on all points of the spectrum to come to the yeshiva.

It’s not a left, liberal yeshiva. It’s open from the sense that any question can be discussed and people can think openly and independently, but their training needs to be from that spectrum of Orthodoxy.

I think there is a perception that it’s more left-wing orthodoxy and I don’t think it has to be. I want to start with getting the word out that we’re open to right and left. And we want our talmidim to be mentored by people from the right and left [of Orthodoxy]… I do want to have our talmidim meet other kinds of students – from HUC, JTS, YU, Ner Israel, Chaim Berlin.

Can non-Orthodox do some teaching? Chovevei has an amazing pastoral training department that’s the best of any rabbinical school. It seems like homiletics and pastoral training and leadership training – those are really non-denominational… In some technical and skill building areas, such as managing non-profits and how to deliver a sermon or a lecture, I would welcome non-Jewish experts to teach… Anyone who as heard some ministers deliver a speech at an AIPAC conference or a CUFI conference (such as John Hagee) knows how valuable it would be to learn from some of these masters of presentation.

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When it comes to things like Gemarah and halachah and haskahfah and Tanach – those are things that need to be taught fully, classically Orthodox. Those are the main meat and potatoes of smicha.

The yeshiva is about educating and teaching. I don’t see ourselves as taking policies in this sense of (women’s roles)… It’s not Asher Lopatin’s view of women in synagogue that’s important. It’s about training these rabbis in a traditional Orthodox way – to really think in broad ways, so I can inspire them to see how broad Orthodoxy is. It’s not about me taking a position. It’s about nurturing these students, making sure they’re in places that are fulfilling to them.

Lopatin, 48, has been a pulpit rabbi for nearly 18 years at Chicago’s Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel, an Orthodox synagogue that counts Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel among its occasional congregants. He broke down for me the roles that women play in services in his shul — a flashpoint in the Orthodox world, and especially for Chovevei’s president, Rabbi Avi Weiss. He also talked about the shul’s cooperative relationship (and, in many cases, membership) with non-Orthodox Jews and institutions.

In my shul on a bat mitzvah, the ritual director who is a woman will say a Misheberech. Women carry the Torah. Pre-bat-mitzvah girls do “Anim Zmirot” with the boys. But as far as an adult woman doing anything, we’re pretty conservative in that regard. I think there is an aesthetic, cultural thing – call it minhag – that is very, very strong in that regard. We definitely have a women’s tefila, women’s mincha once a month. In the women’s Simchat Torah they read from the Torah, but [in a single-gender setting and] it’s not part of a service but part of a Torah learning program.

The synagogue does a lot of activities with the Conservative and Reform synagogue in the neighborhood. We can’t daven with them, but we can have dinners with them, we can have learning with them [e.g. on Shavuot]. We’ve also been able to have a lot of shiurim in spirituality, meditation. We’ve been able to create a sense of community, a sense that Orthodox is open, that you can go into an Orthodox shul and feel comfortable and not judged. I realize in some places an Orthodox shul is for Orthodox people and that’s it. But I really hope that a frum synagogue can appeal to people who aren’t even kosher or shomer Shabbos but are trying a little bit more.

Will there be any connection between the all-male student body at Chovevei and the women at Yeshivat Maharat, the Manhattan-based women’s seminary Weiss founded to train women halachic authorities? The institution is led by Sara Hurwitz, the woman whom Weiss ordained as a “rabba,” and the yeshiva confers the title of “maharat” upon graduates.

For now they’re very separate. I do think that we’re living in an unprecedented time where there are women that learning is part of their curriculum, that are trained in the same interests as male rabbis – so I think it is a question for the yeshiva. Will there be some areas where the male rabbinical students will have some encounter with female maharat students? Across the spectrum of Modern Orthodoxy, we understand there need to be professional women who are Jewish who are inspirers in the congregation, whatever you want to call them – congregational interns or whatever… It would be kind of strange for the men not to have any encounter on a professional level during their training with these women.

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